7 tips to better communicate a layoff

Layoffs are hard on everyone, but don’t make them more painful than they need to be.

The U.S. economy is allegedly improving, but try telling that to the 4,500 employees who lost their jobs at Citigroup, or the 30,000 who will leave Bank of America in the next few years.

The fact is, layoffs happen even when the economy is doing well. Industry trends, competition, cost management and many other factors can cause companies to shed employees.

Layoffs are awful for everyone involved. Of course, the people who lose their jobs suffer the most. But to be fair, those left behind—even company leaders—suffer when companies cut jobs.

Communication can help ease the pain. There is nothing that can make people feel good about layoffs—unless you are a compassionless shareholder—but if you communicate layoffs the right way, you can help ease the pain and facilitate recovery.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you communicate layoffs:

Develop a plan.

You might not know in advance that your company will lay people off, but it’s a good practice to have a communicator at the table from the start. Regardless of when you are brought into the discussion, the first thing to do is develop a communication plan.

Detail how you will announce the layoff, as well as how to handle the days and weeks following the announcement. Keep employees informed of the process every step of the way. Prepare managers for the difficult tasks ahead. Think ahead to the days and weeks following the layoff.

Be timely.

Companies are obligated to let certain groups of people know about the layoff plan first, but employees should find out simultaneously, or at least as soon as possible. It should go without saying, but don’t let the grapevine or media deliver the news to employees.

Put leaders out front.

This is the time for strong, visible leadership. Nobody wants to deliver bad news, but employees respect leaders who communicate openly and frequently, and who don’t hide in their offices.

Be honest and candid.

Employees can see through B.S. Tell employees the business reasons for the layoff in a straightforward way. If employees were laid off because the company failed to effectively manage its cost structure, acknowledge that.

Be respectful.

Treat employees like adults. Recognize this news is devastating to employees, regardless of whether they will lose their jobs. When you make the announcement, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to notify employees of their individual status, so be respectful of the anxiety this news will cause.

When individuals find out they no longer have a job, treat them with dignity. Never give them a box for their belongings and have security officers escort them to the door. Believe me, this has happened.

Show an appropriate degree of empathy.

If your management has never treated employees with respect and empathy before, this is not the time to start—it will only seem fake. But if your management has wisely made deposits into its goodwill account over the years, acknowledge how difficult the layoff is for everyone and how hard it is to have to make such an awful business decision.

Remember the survivors.

You should develop a communication plan not only to inform employees of the layoff, but for the days and weeks after the announcement. Survivors will likely be sad to lose co-workers, scared of what the future holds, and even a bit angry at business leaders. Think about communication activities and content that could help ease them back into business as usual.

Do you have any tips for communicating a layoff?

Robert J. Holland is employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 firm in Richmond, Va. He blogs at Communication at Work where a version of this article originally ran.

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